By Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 20, 2009
House Democrats have rushed to the defense of Speaker Nancy Pelosi in her public battle with the CIA, a reflection of the enormous loyalty the California Democrat enjoys in her caucus despite a month-long effort by Republicans to use the dispute to weaken her standing.
Yesterday several leading Democrats joined her in criticizing the CIA's procedures for briefing Congress on intelligence issues and, rather than distancing themselves from Pelosi, top Democrats said they believe that the CIA misled her in a September 2002 briefing about controversial techniques used during interrogations of alleged al-Qaeda operatives. Some questioned the agency's new director, Leon Panetta, for defending officials for actions that occurred before his tenure, while others tried to poke holes in the accuracy of the CIA's recordkeeping.
The strong support for Pelosi stems in large part from the reservoir of goodwill she gained in leading her caucus to a House majority in 2006. Most of her Democratic colleagues continue to trust her judgment and say they want her to be their leader in pressing a broad agenda with the White House, including health-care reform and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
"I think the members [of] the Democratic caucus see this for what it is -- a political tactic to distract from the substance of what was done," House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) said yesterday of Republican attempts to exploit the CIA controversy.
Hoyer, a former Pelosi rival in leadership elections, added that not a single member of the Democratic caucus has questioned him about Pelosi's stance, and he said it has not been a point of discussion in leadership meetings.
Pelosi has maintained that she was told in her 2002 briefing by CIA officials that the controversial interrogation technique of waterboarding, which simulates drowning, had not yet been used on any detainees. Subsequent government reports showed that in the month before Pelosi's briefing, one captive had been waterboarded 83 times.
Republicans continued to question Pelosi's assertion that the CIA lied to her about waterboarding yesterday, dismissing complaints from other Democrats about the quality of the agency's records and working to keep the focus on Pelosi. "The speaker accused our intelligence professionals of lying to her. Where's her evidence to back up this charge? If she doesn't have any, she should apologize to these men and women who spend their lives protecting this country," said Michael Steel, spokesman for House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio).
Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.), who was the top Republican on the Senate intelligence committee in 2002, joined a growing chorus of GOP lawmakers asking for more detailed notes of the briefings that he and Pelosi received a few weeks apart. Shelby, who said his briefing included detailed descriptions of the use of waterboarding, said those notes "would settle it."
Pelosi dispatched a top aide to review those notes last week before accusing the CIA of misleading Congress, and she has also called for their release, saying they will vindicate her. The agency is reviewing that request.
Panetta, in an e-mail to agency staff members Friday, stood by the CIA's records and said the agency does not make it a practice to "mislead" Congress, as Pelosi charged. Yesterday, agency officials reiterated that its records are not meant as official transcripts of congressional briefings but said the document outlining which lawmakers and aides received what information "reflects the records it has."
"CIA isn't hyping anything," Paul Gimigliano, an agency spokesman, said in a statement.
Republicans view the current controversy -- sparked a month ago by Pelosi's calls for a truth commission to investigate the Bush White House's approval of interrogation techniques -- as their first successful effort to dent the speaker's image. For the previous two years, Republican attempts to turn Pelosi into a polarizing political figure have largely fallen flat. The GOP ran ad campaigns in Southern states linking Democratic candidates to her, for example, only to see the Democrats still prevail.
Pelosi is by no means popular with the general public outside of her San Francisco district, but congressional leaders rarely are. A new CNN poll found that 39 percent of voters approve of her job performance. At a similar stage in his tenure as speaker, Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) was supported by 25 percent of voters in 1997.
But House Democrats, who spent 12 years mired in the minority before seizing control of the chamber in 2006, remain highly loyal to Pelosi.
Rep. David R. Obey (D-Wis.) yesterday criticized the CIA in a letter to Panetta, targeting the accuracy of the 10-page chart it issued last week listing each lawmaker and aide who attended briefings over the past seven years on "enhanced interrogation techniques" (EITs). That chart showed Pelosi, the top Democrat on the intelligence committee at the time, as being briefed on "particular EITs that had been employed" against a top al-Qaeda suspect -- a phrase Republicans have seized on as evidence that she was aware of waterboarding and approved of its use.
Obey, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, noted that a committee staffer listed as having attended a briefing had, in fact, merely escorted lawmakers to the briefing room and remained outside. "We request that you immediately correct this record," Obey wrote.
Former senator Bob Graham (D-Fla.), chairman of the Senate intelligence panel in 2002, also questioned the accuracy of the CIA's records, saying that its memos on other briefings wrongly showed him attending briefings at which he was not present. Graham has repeatedly said that his interrogation briefing did not include any mention of waterboarding -- a dramatically different account than the one offered by Shelby, who, along with Graham, was briefed by CIA officials three weeks after Pelosi's briefing.
In defending Pelosi, Hoyer also questioned Panetta's decision to characterize CIA actions from almost seven years ago. "Mr. Panetta was not there. He wasn't director," Hoyer said of the 2002 briefing.
"I think she is accurate. My experience with Speaker Pelosi, I will tell you, over a very long period of time -- we've known each other 40 years plus -- she has an extraordinarily good memory and remembers a lot of things of meetings that I have forgotten," Hoyer said.
Other Democrats have flocked to cable news outlets to back their leader.
"Believe me when I say this, Nancy Pelosi is not in any trouble," Rep. John B. Larson (Conn.) said on MSNBC this week. "If anything, the wagons are circling more around the speaker during this time. When you're attacked in the Beltway by Dick Cheney, Newt Gingrich and Karl Rove, that says it all."